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At White House meeting, video game industry denies role in gun violence

President Trump met with video game executives and outside experts to discuss violent media and school shootings. (Image: WBMA)

Video game executives, lawmakers and experts met with President Donald Trump on Thursday as part of an ongoing discussion of gun violence and school safety.

One of the participants in that meeting described a vigorous and intense back and forth discussion between the video gaming interests and outside experts arguing over the connection between violent media and video games and violent behavior.

"The president was sincerely interested in asking questions and seeing what the industry was willing to do," Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (ret.) told Sinclair Broadcast Group. "The industry made it very clear that they were not willing to do anything."

Grossman, author of "Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing," said that while the meeting was not conclusive the president was engaged and looking for ways to address gun violence and school safety.

During a separate meeting on school shootings last month, the president suggested that there should be more strict controls and rating systems on video games.

"I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts," Trump said, suggesting "we have to do something."

Grossman said the representatives from the gaming industry and the president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ERSB) affirmed to President Trump that their rating system is effective.

When challenged by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., about applying their rating systems on online sales, the gaming executives argued that a credit card purchase was sufficient proof of age. They firmly fought against the idea of enforcing content ratings by legally restricting sales to minors.

In 2011, The ESRB and Entertainment Software Association were among the parties in a landmark Supreme Court case that determined video game sales may not be restricted by law because they are protected under the First Amendment.

"The industry refuses to accept any responsibility," Grossman continued, citing media reports that the 19-year-old alleged Parkland shooter spent hours every day playing violent video games. "They do not accept any responsibility for anything that happens."

Grossman's research is assigned reading in the U.S. Marine Corps and in universities across the country. One of his core conclusions is that the popular first-person shooter games do not just desensitize players to violence, but train them to overcome the natural human aversion to kill.

The point-and-shoot video games mimic the training and conditioning used to help soldiers overcome that natural resistance. "A flight simulator teaches you to fly, murder simulators teach you to commit mass murders," he said.

Thursday's meeting was the first of many with industry leaders to discuss "violent video-game exposure and the correlation to aggression and desensitization in children," the White House said in a statement released earlier in the day.

Other attendees have been tight-lipped about what went on behind closed doors, but as Grossman described, the room was stacked with participants who are sharply divided on the issue.

Mike Gallagher, the CEO of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), attended the meeting. His association represents some of the top gaming companies, including PlayStation, Microsoft, Nintendo and Activision and serves as the lobbying arm for the multi-billion dollar video game industry.

In a statement earlier in the week, ESA spokesman Dan Hewit asserted, "Video games are plainly not the issue: entertainment is distributed and consumed globally, but the U.S. has an exponentially higher level of gun violence than any other nation."

Hewitt said the meeting with the president will provide an opportunity to have a "fact-based conversation" about the gaming industry.

Other industry representatives included Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two Interactive, which produced Grand Theft Auto and Robert Altman, Chairman of ZeniMax Media the parent company of the creators of DOOM and Wolfenstein.

On the other side of the debate are experts and critics of the gaming industry, Brent Bozell, who founded the Parents Television Council and currently heads the Media Research Center. Bozell has cited the correlation between mass shootings and the perpetrators' (sometimes obsessive) use of first-person shooter games.

President Trump also invited Republican lawmakers Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri and Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama. All three have a history of defending looser gun restrictions and have been endorsed by the NRA.

The invite list alone would make the kind of "fact-based conversation" the gaming industry hoped to have more challenging. But the bigger challenge is reaching a consensus on what specific role, if any, violent video games and media play in gun violence and school shootings.

DO GAMES CAUSE VIOLENCE? IT'S COMPLICATED

The most recent Surgeon General's report to address the issue was published in 2001 and found, that "the impact of video games on violent behavior remains to be determined."

Since then, video game sales have more than tripled in the United States and numerous studies have been conducted, both independent and paid for by parties who have a stake in the outcome of the research.

Overall, the independent research has shown there is a correlation between increased aggression and exposure to violent video games, both in the short-term and over time, said Dr. Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research.

"When you look at studies conducted by independent researchers who do not have some financial interest in what the outcome of the study is going to be, you see a clear relationship between violent games, violent movies, violent TV and more aggressive behavior," Zuckerman explained.

By 2015, the American Psychological Association concluded that while the research is more complex than a simple causal relationship, "violent video game use has an effect on aggression."

This is true especially when individuals are engaging with the violent media, such as playing a game, rather than passively consuming it.

"Obviously it's not the only thing going on here," she continued. That is why she believes it is difficult to try to retroactively prove a causal relationship between a mass shooter's video gaming habits and the act that person commits.

"There are a lot of factors involved and violent video games is one of them," she said of recent mass shootings. "But let's be clear about this, access to weapons is the most important aspect of this because the most harm is done when kids have access to weapons."

LAWMAKERS SAY 'LOOK AT EVERYTHING' TO IMPROVE SCHOOL SAFETY

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were open to the president's meeting, saying that any additional research into the potential causes of gun violence is welcome.

"I think it's a worthwhile conversation to have with the industry," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. "We should be able to look into the relationship of all kinds of factors to gun violence, and to violence in general."

At the same time, looking at video games is not a substitute for other measures to address gun violence, the congresswoman added, saying, "maybe it's part of the picture, but certainly not sufficient."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., praised the president for "looking at the cultural aspect" of gun violence. He told reporters on Thursday, "I want to look at everything."

That is why Graham said he wants the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to study "the root cause of violence and find out what drives all of this—how much of it is mental health, how much of it is cultural, how much of it is the type of gun."

Under a 1995 law, the Dickey Wicker Amendment, the CDC is banned from receiving any federal funding to research mental health issues that might be related to advocate or promote gun control.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, a minority of Republicans have expressed a desire to repeal the amendment. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, suggested Congress should "take a look at" the provision, particularly if it prevents legitimate research related to mental health.

Lawmakers also stressed that the industry has a social responsibility for the products it creates and parents are responsible for the content they allow their children to engage with.

Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, told KUTV News that it's important to include video games, first-person shooter games and other forms of media in the discussion of school safety.

"Put it all on the table," she said. "And instead of trying to win political points, we have to do everything we can to make our schools safe."

"It's important for us to look at what our children are exposed to," Love said, describing violent media as "planting these seeds in our students' heads" with graphic, realistic depictions of violence.

The research on causal relationships between mass shooters and video games is far from conclusive and can be intensely divisive, particularly after the Supreme Court decision protecting games under the First Amendment.

Perhaps less controversial is the idea that video games are having an impact on individuals' overall mental health.

In late 2017, the World Health Organization added "gaming disorder" to its International Classification of Diseases. In this year's classification, gaming disorder, or video game addiction, was listed among other mental, behavioral or neurodevelopmental disorders.


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